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Handyman Dad

I suppose if it weren’t for the toilet that wouldn’t flush all those years ago, I wouldn’t be the married man I am today or living the life I’m living today. 

But thank you, God, for that commode. The raven-haired beauty who lived in the apartment just down the way had invited me over for a casual meal of grilled cheese and tomato soup, and she just happened to mention the problem with the flushing. So like any red-blooded, can-do American male possessing of plumbing skills, I brought a few tools along with me.

As she busied herself in the kitchen, I took off the toilet lid and set about taking a good, long, hard look at the situation. It would take a bit of time, I told her, blathering a bit about the complexity and difficulty of the problem. Then I set to work. And though it took a while to get the job done, I finally had the toilet flushing again like a dream.

Man, was she impressed. 

Oh, it’s nothing, I told her. Nothing. Really. 

Now here we are, all these years later, and I like to think I’ve still got it. The skills, I mean. And much improved since those days, if I do say so myself. At least that’s what I spend endless hours trying to convince that beauty – still raven-haired – after all this time. 

The truth is, I’m usually faking it.

As any Harry Homeowner-type family man knows, there’s nothing like the threat of a huge repair bill from someone with actual handyman skills to motivate the meekest among us to try to fix something ourselves. 

I remember spending my early days as a new homeowner standing gape-mouthed before the 10-foot-tall temple of chrome and brass fixtures at the big-box home-improvement store, trying to figure out how to fix my own bathroom plumbing. And yes, in time, I was able to pat myself on the back for discovering that I could fix a dripping bathtub faucet by replacing a $1.99 rubber bib washer instead of calling a guy who’d likely charge me more than a hundred bucks to do the job.

A few years later, the hot water heater went on the blink, and I’d resigned myself to the sight of a repair van pulling into my driveway. But it turned out the heater was still under warranty, and the company sent me a replacement burner unit, along with the link to an online video that showed me, step by step, how to do the work myself. Which I did. I was so pleased with myself that I still have the old burner displayed like a trophy on a basement shelf.

My wife still talks about how I refused to call the refrigerator repairman when the icemaker stopped making ice. I found the appliance repair manual online, ordered the errant parts, and even though it seemed I needed three arms and four hands to line things up inside the freezer, I managed to snap all the pieces together and get that ice cranking again.

But don’t get me wrong. For all the times I emerge dirty and sweaty from the attic or crawlspace victorious in my efforts to keep the house up and running, there are times when a panel of experts (and wives) might easily tag me as Dumbest Man on the Planet.

There was the time the downstairs home office carpet mysteriously became soaked with water. My wife rolled her eyes as I theorized that a misdirected roof gutter might be channeling rainwater down through the walls. Or maybe our concrete foundation had cracked and all the world’s groundwater was seeping up from below. Plumbers came, took one look, then just turned off the valve to a water line leading to the kitchen. They rolled their eyes at me, too.

For all my talents, you’d think I could fix a vacuum cleaner that refuses to suck up dirt. But the physics of pneumatic technology continue to elude me. I guess I’ll have to surrender and buy a new machine. And after accidentally setting off our home’s security system, I spent nearly twenty minutes on a stepladder unscrewing wires from the ceiling alarm like a secret agent in Mission: Impossible before remembering there is an on/off switch in the bedroom closet.

But I’m always looking for glory, no matter how incidental or self-serving it might be. Just recently I noticed a few loose boards on our deck. I waited until my wife was lounging on the porch where she couldn’t help but see me working, then made a big deal out of firing up the drill, gave my assessment of the deck’s overall condition and likely lifespan, and mansplained the difference between flat-head and Phillips head screws. 

Still, my ultimate rule about anything around the house that might need fixing is far more circumspect and cowardly: Maybe if I ignore it, it will just go away. Because sometimes miracles do happen, and things magically fix themselves. As when the upstairs toilet started running a while back. I lined up my tools in the bathroom in a showy display a day or two ahead of time so everyone could see I meant business. Then, all of a sudden, the gurgling noise stopped. 

Of course I claimed credit for fixing it anyway. Just as I did all those years ago for the woman who went on to build a life with me. No, I didn’t bother telling her back then that her toilet wasn’t really broken. Why miss out on a chance to impress? I remember grunting and sighing and banging my tools around inside the porcelain tank for a full twenty minutes, acting like a huge repair was in progress, but fixing absolutely nothing. Then I just reattached the chain to the flush handle, which had simply fallen off.

It was nothing. Really. But let’s let that be our little secret, shall we? My marriage depends on it.

Tony Farrell has written about parenting for many books, magazines, and websites. The father of two, Tony has written the DadZone since 2009.
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